A connoisseur, antiquarian and sophisticated collector, Beckford was among a great cohort of similar enthusiasts of his time, Walpole, Soane, Hope, intrigued and influenced by the past whilst passionate about collecting, designing and building. The set of twelve chairs and pair of matching stools, almost certainly of the design referred to as the ‘Fonthill pattern’ appear in many of the artist Willes Maddox’s interiors of Lansdown Tower. Maddox depicts them in the Scarlet and Crimson Drawing rooms and the Sanctuary, whilst the armchairs appear in Edmund F. English’s Views of Lansdown Tower Bath(1844), where one chair of this model appears in the overtly staged depiction of ‘Ornamental Furniture from Mr. Beckford’s Collection’ described as ‘TWO BLACK ANTIQUE SHAPED ELBOW CHAIRS, with gilt ornaments, the backs and seats covered with crimson morine, with silk fringe’. Whether these formed part of the original furnishings of Beckford’s remarkable abbey in Wiltshire will most likely remain conjecture as the descriptions of the furniture in the 1822-3 auction catalogues are not detailed enough to ascertain with total certainty, but English’s description may suggest an earlier acquisition. Indeed the set of twelve chairs may well be those described in Phillips’ thirty-seven day sale of the contents of Fonthill Abbey in 1823 as ’12 ebonised ditto [chairs], backs and seats, stuffed with hair, covered with red morocco leather and silk fringe’. We know that Beckford bought back some of his favoured possessions in that sale and had them moved to Bath so this is a plausible suggestion.
It is further interesting to note in support of the current seat furniture having originated at Fonthill, that in John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey of 1823, a group of eight X-framed stools conceived in the antique manner, similar to that of the current armchairs, are seen in The Grand Drawing Room demonstrating that this form of furniture was not foreign to Beckford’s taste at this time. Beckford was certainly very aware of the interiors that the great Regency designer Thomas Hope had created in his Duchess Street mansion, indeed he had even considered Hope to be a potential future son-in-law at one stage, and there is an undeniable correlation between the current armchairs and that depicted in plate XX of Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration of 1807 and the example in the Royal Pavilion Brighton, whilst the stools are of very similar form to those illustrated by Hope in plate VI.
The ‘antique’ design of both the armchairs and the side chairs and stools reflecting both classical antiquity and in the case of the fluted legs to the chairs and stools the renaissance taste, would have appealed greatly to Beckford’s sensibilities. The ebonised surface of this furniture would have been in keeping with the oriental lacquer and earlier pieces of ebony furniture Beckford is known to have collected which we now know originally emanated from the Coromandel Coast of India or Batavia some of which is illustrated in situ in John Britton’s Graphical and Literary Illustrations of Fonthill Abbey of 1823. Such pieces were highly prized by the bibliophile collectors of this period, attracted by their early origins (see Sotheby’s London, 3 May 2018, lot 130 for a pair of ebony cabinets which were possibly at Fonthill).
Whether this seat furniture was originally commissioned by Beckford and with every possibility designed by him, for Fonthill or Lansdown Tower is open to conjecture. What makes them so important however, in the history of English furniture, is the design, an early example of the antiquarian taste, a precursor to the more widely adopted historicism that was to pervade furniture design more prevalently in the nineteenth century. The group truly demonstrates the sophisticated taste of one of England’s most celebrated connoisseur collectors, a visionary and a gentleman responsible in part for a revival that was to dominate rest of that century.
Following Beckford’s death in 1844, this group of furniture passed to his daughter and son-in-law, Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852) who, like Beckford, was a passionate collector. He often vied with his father-in-law over purchases and it serves as a further testament to Beckford’s taste that these were amongst the possessions that the Duke added to his collection.
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